Preview of Death on the Prairie: Chloe Ellefson Mystery #6
Written by Kathleen Ernst
Published by Midnight Ink Books
"They had playhouses under the two big oaks in front of the house. Mary's house was under Mary's tree, and Laura's house was under Laura's tree." Little House in the Big Woods
“This quilt belonged to who?” Chloe Ellefson's voice squeaked on the last word. “Did you say...Laura Ingalls Wilder?”
“Whom, dear,” Miss Lila said. “Yes. This quilt belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
Chloe reached toward the folded quilt that had been deposited with far too little ceremony on her desk. Her fingers stopped short. Instead she grabbed a ballpoint pen lying a foot away, terrified that ink might inexplicably geyser forth, and tossed it onto the floor.
Miss Lila's forehead wrinkled. “Are you alright, dear?”
“I need gloves. And acid-free tissue. And...” Chloe sank back in her chair and regarded her guest. “What...how...are you sure? Laura?”
“Gracious, Chloe.” Miss Lila's voice held the faint rebuke that can only come from long years of acquaintance.
Which was to be expected, Chloe thought. Miss Lila Gillespie had lived next to her parents' house in Stoughton, Wisconsin, forever. She always wore dresses and heavy stockings that bunched around her ankles. She'd carried the same black pocketbook for as long as Chloe could remember. She was quite thin, with the posture of a broomstick. But a plump and generous heart beat beneath the starched shell. Miss Lila was the go-to grandma for every child on the block.
“Sorry,” Chloe managed. “It's just that...well, lots of people contact me about donating heirlooms, but no one's offered an artifact that belonged to Laura.”
Miss Lila smiled. “I remember reading Little House in the Big Woods to you and your sister. I don't know who enjoyed it more, you or Kari.”
“Me,” Chloe assured her, although Kari had loved it too. Seeing Miss Lila evoked memories of chocolate cookies and delicate china, gleaming old furniture scented with Lemon Pledge, stories read aloud as snow drifted past windows framed with long lace curtains.
“And now your mother tells me that you've been invited to give a speech about that book...? What an honor.”
“Well, it's not that big a deal,” Chloe said. “In grad school I wrote a paper arguing that although Little House in the Big Woods is a novel, the historical processes Laura described—churning butter, butchering, maple sugaring—were authentic, and acceptable as partial documentation for historic sites' programming. Somebody mentioned it to somebody else, and I got invited to talk at a gathering of Little House fans in a couple of weeks. The symposium will be in De Smet, South Dakota, where several of the later books are set.”
“You must be excited!”
“Actually, I haven't had a lot of time to think about it.” Like, None. Chloe planned to blow the dust from her original paper and pretty much wing it from there. “Anyway, how come you never told me about this quilt?”
“I inherited it from a cousin several years ago. I showed it to Kari, but you were living out of the country at the time.”
Chloe regarded the quilt. She'd worked in the historic sites biz for over a decade, and had served as collections curator at the huge outdoor ethnic museum called Old World Wisconsin for almost a year. She'd held hundreds of treasures in her gloved hands—some fragile as cobwebs, some folk art treasures worth thousands of dollars, some the only surviving scrap left to honor an unknown woman's life. But still, nothing like this.
Based on the fabrics, Chloe guestimated that the quilt had been made during the period covered in the Little House books. Maybe 1883, she thought. Exactly one hundred years ago. Maybe Laura had wrapped herself in this very quilt during one of the prairie blizzards she'd described so vividly. The notion brought a lump to Chloe's throat, and she felt ridiculously emotional.
Geez, get a grip, she told herself. She imagined getting all dewy-eyed at the next Collections Committee meeting, while her boss looked on with contempt. That was a scene to be avoided.
At least no one else is here to see me reduced to a stuttering fan-girl, Chloe thought. Miss Lila had presented herself without warning at Education House—the small home that the state purchased when almost six hundred acres within a state forest had been set aside to establish the sprawling historic site. It was after five, and the curators of research and interpretation had gone home.
Chloe tried to transform back into the oh-so-professional curator she generally aspired to be. “Tell me everything you know about this quilt.” She retrieved her pen and grabbed a notebook.
Miss Lila folded her hands. “My cousin Inez gave me a few heirlooms, including Laura's quilt, before she passed away. Like me, Inez had no children. I've enjoyed having the quilt, but I'm eighty-eight. This quilt deserves a permanent home.”
“How did your cousin come to have it? Is there any documentation specific to Laura?”
Miss Lila waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing in writing, but it's come down in family lore. Inez's husband was descended from one of Caroline Quiner's sisters.”
Chloe nodded. Caroline Quiner was Laura's mother, AKA Ma, who later married Charles Ingalls, AKA Pa.
“Caroline was born near Milwaukee, but Laura was born in Pepin, Wisconsin.”
Everyone knew that. Chloe's mind danced ahead to a question she hardly dared articulate. “Did Laura...actually...make the quilt?”
“Inez used the word 'own.'”
“Laura visited Pepin after she and Almanzo Wilder married,” Miss Lila added, “and gave the quilt to a relative.”
“Really? I would have figured she had her hands full out in South Dakota after she got married.”
“That doesn't mean she didn't visit her old home at some point.”
“No,” Chloe allowed, but strands of caution were weaving through her excitement. This quilt might, or might not, have belonged to the famous author. Research might, or might not, answer that question. But she couldn't present the proposed donation to her colleagues as a sure-thing Laura artifact without more to go on.
Then, with a further sinking heart, she thought of something else. “Have you considered offering the quilt to one of the Laura sites and museums?”
“I have. Last year I wrote to someone at each historic site that preserves one of Laura's homes. The trouble is, they're all interested.”
“Ah.” No surprise there. Even without verifying that Laura had owned the quilt, just knowing that it might have been owned by her, and had passed down through a branch of the family, would have tickled any Lauraphile's fancy.
“I didn't know which site should receive the quilt, so I just put the problem out of my mind,” Miss Lila confessed. “Then your mother stopped by this morning to ask if I needed any daylilies, and she mentioned your invitation to speak. And I thought, Well, there is the answer! Laura was born in Wisconsin, and I knew you'd take good care of the quilt, so I concluded that it should come here instead.”
Chloe nibbled her lower lip. A curator's personal artifact lust was not acceptable rationale for accepting a donation. Besides, all of Old World's restored homes and farmsteads were furnished to reflect the actual family which had once lived there. Interpreters in period clothing used those specific stories to helped visitors gain insight into the larger experience of the Yankees and Europeans who had flooded the state in the 1800s. If Old World Wisconsin did acquire Miss Lila's quilt, it might be displayed during some special event, but it could not be exhibited and interpreted as Laura's on a daily basis.
The trouble was, Chloe really wanted her site to acquire the quilt. She wanted to be able to look at it whenever she wished. Maybe even touch it with a non-gloved finger from time to time. If she was having a bad day.
Then a mental image of herself creeping into storage—like an art thief who hung Rembrandts and Van Goghs on the walls of an armored room hidden behind bookshelves—popped into mind. And so begins a descent to the curatorial dark side, she thought.
Reluctantly, she faced facts. “As the owner, you can the offer the quilt to any historic site or museum you choose. But I think it might be wise to reconsider donating it to one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites.”
“Well, I did have one other idea,” Miss Lila said. “Maybe each Laura Ingalls Wilder site deserves something. I could cut the quilt into pieces, and—”
“No!” Chloe's toes curled in horror. “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to yell, but I strongly advise against that. Wherever the quilt ends up, it should stay intact.”
Miss Lila's gaze held a hint of shrewd amusement. “Then please, dear. Which site should get the quilt? I trust your professional opinion.”
I think I just got played, Chloe thought. But how could she care, when a quilt that might have once graced Laura's bed was involved? “Do you have contact information for the historic sites? The names of people who responded to your original inquiries?”
“Of course.” Miss Lila pulled paper from her pocketbook. “Here you are.”
Chloe accepted the pages. “Even if your final choice is to offer it to Old World Wisconsin, I don't have the authority to accept it myself. All potential donations are discussed at curatorial meetings, and the next one won't take place for over a month. But that buys us some time.”
“Time for what, dear?”
“With your permission, I'll contact each site and discuss your proposed donation. I can get a sense of their storage facilities, whether the quilt would be put on display...that sort of thing.”
“Lovely.” Miss Lila beamed. “I will leave the quilt in your capable hands.”
Oh-boy-oh-boy-oh-boy! Chloe thought with giddy glee, before summoning her grownup voice. “Since the quilt is not yet officially a proposed donation to Old World, I'm not sure that I should—”
“I'm sure,” Miss Lila said firmly. “What was that you were saying about acid-free tissue...?”
Played again, Chloe thought, but she didn't care about that either. Technically she could not provide expensive curatorial supplies to stabilize an artifact that had not been legally transferred to Old World Wisconsin, but she still didn't care. “I'll package the quilt properly,” she promised. “And I'll let you know what I discover after talking with people at the sites.”
Miss Lila looked thoughtful. “Each site will send a representative to the symposium, don't you think? Take the quilt to South Dakota so they can see it for themselves.”
Chloe leaned back in her chair, picturing herself creeping along dirt roads all the way to De Smet, desperate to avoid fiery collision. And what if she encountered a trunk-piercing hailstorm? Or a tornado? “I don't think I should travel with the quilt, Miss Lila. That would make me very nervous.”
“Chloe.” Miss Lila leaned forward. “I want you to learn what you can about this quilt, and choose its permanent home.”
Who could say no? “All right,” Chloe conceded. “But before you go, I need you to sign a loan form.” She knew she'd have a nervous breakdown if anything happened to the quilt, but at least she could avoid a lawsuit against her employer by dotting and crossing the legal i's and t's. She fetched the necessary form, filled out the basics, and handed it over.
“If it makes you feel better.” Miss Lila signed with a flourish that suggested schooling in the Palmer Method of handwriting. “There you are.”
Chloe walked her to the door. Before leaving, Miss Lila paused and put one hand to Chloe's cheek. “Thank you, my dear. This is important, and I trust you.”
“I'll do my very best,” Chloe promised humbly.
After Miss Lila left, Chloe spent a good five minutes staring at the quilt. And such a lovely quilt it was! The pretty blocks were stitched largely in soft reds and browns and tans. Through the magic of geometry, simple squares and triangles had been transformed into a complex design.
Something quivered beneath Chloe's ribs, as if one of her heartstrings had been plucked. She slowly opened her bottom desk drawer and pulled out a hardcover book. Little House In The Big Woods. The dust jacket was tattered, but Garth William's painting of young Laura hugging her rag doll Charlotte still charmed. Chloe remembered how overwhelmed she had been on her first day at Old World Wisconsin. She'd hadn't been in good emotional shape then; hadn't been sure she could survive the probation period mandated for state service professionals. She'd brought this book to work as a talisman, and kept it close ever since.
Only another true Little House-lover could understand what the books had meant to her as a child. It wasn't just that she and Kari had “played Laura and Mary.” Or that Chloe had turned a back yard bower into a private playhouse she called Laura Land—soft grass and green leaves magically transformed into a log cabin. Laura's adventures had captivated. Laura's struggles had inspired. Laura had been a faithful friend when no one else understood. Laura's stories had sparked Chloe's interest in history, her hobbies, her career and professional passions.
This book led me here, Chloe thought, contemplating her surroundings. Ed House was old and worn. She had only a corner of what had once been a small living room to call her own, with a battered wooden desk and an even more battered metal filing cabinet. But the house was nestled into the forest, overlooking a gloriously swampy lake—a “kettle pond,” in the parlance of those familiar with the glacially-carved landscape. Beyond the pond was the historic site proper, with dozens of historic structures that had been moved from all over the state and restored to function as working farms and a crossroads village. Chloe hadn't been sure about coming to work here a year ago, but she'd long since fallen in love with this special place.
Chloe considered the contact information for the historic sites that Miss Lila had provided. Pepin, Wisconsin; Walnut Grove, Minnesota; Independence, Kansas; De Smet, South Dakota—all familiar names from the Little House books. She knew nothing about Burr Oak, Iowa, or Mansfield, Missouri.
Then Chloe dug through a file drawer until she found the packet of symposium materials. It had arrived during the height of site-opening, and she hadn't even peeked inside the envelope. She ripped the manila open now. The top page held a banner headline: Are you Looking For Laura? Join us in De Smet!
A tantalizing idea presented itself. Chloe tapped the book as she toyed with the possibility. She couldn't.
Yes, she could. It was the first week of May. Old World Wisconsin had only been open for a few days, but her big push had come in April, when she'd had to ready all of the farms and shops and homes for the open season, and help train the incoming interpreters. She'd been working sixty-hour weeks for a couple of months. She was exhausted. Her boss had already approved time off for her trip to South Dakota, and would probably approve of more. As long as he didn't have to pay for it, site director Ralph Petty was big on professional collaboration with other sites. God only knew what trouble he'd make for her while she was gone, but she'd worry about that later.
Chloe called Information and got her sister's number. She began to dial...and slammed down the receiver after the third digit. She paced the room for a moment. Stopped to gaze upon the quilt. Paced some more.
“OK,” she muttered finally. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
She dialed the complete number. Kari picked up on the third ring. “Chloe?” she asked, sounding startled. Then her voice changed. “Oh God. What's wrong?”
Chloe made a mental note to call her sister more often. “Nothing is wrong. I was just wondering...How'd you like to take a road trip?”
Death on the Prairie: A Chloe Ellefson Mystery © 2015 by Kathleen Ernst.